Margaret George, author of best-selling historical novels such as The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles,
tackles the story of Jesus with Mary, Called Magdalene -- an audacious task for any author to undertake. Jesus is, at the very least, a great historical figure, as well as being to many others a physical manifestation of God Himself on earth.
Ms. George ultimately (and unfortunately) falls short, but not for want of trying. She has obviously researched her bible and other sources well and, to her credit, attempts to write a novel about Jesus without resorting to the more outrageous interpretations that some other writers have tacked on to the story. She keeps her story of Jesus primarily limited to events as detailed in the New Testament while
fleshing out these events to tell the story in a novelistic manner.
But first, Ms. George give us the fictional tale of Mary Magdalene’s childhood. In Part One of the novel, we are introduced to Mary as a young child. She is a precocious girl who is already, at the age of six, chafing at the limits her society places upon women.
She wants to learn to read so badly that she commits the “sin” of sneaking
around behind her parents’ backs to participate in a friend’s reading lessons.
On her first trip away from home, little Mary finds a small carved ivory idol. Although it is another sin, she doesn’t destroy it but rather pockets it and secretly retains it. It is a graven image, forbidden to her, but still she keeps it. Here she has committed a sin she ultimately regrets for, over the passing years, the demon the idol represents comes to possess her. It will require the power of Jesus to expel the pagan demon from her.
From Part Two on, we have the story of Jesus through Mary’s eyes as she becomes a follower of Jesus after the demon is expelled from her. The author here
appropriately gives readers an idea of the price some followers paid for becoming a disciple of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is condemned by and ostracized from her own family, forbidden to see her own young baby daughter. It must have been difficult for many of the disciples to leave their families to fight for a cause, and the author rightfully represents the societal condemnation toward those who chose to do so. Jesus himself, after announcing that he is the messiah, is very nearly immediately thrown off a high cliff, an event also detailed in the New Testament.
Kudos to Ms. George for her attempt to write this novel and to do so with respect to the statements given in the Bible. There is much to like in this book. Still, Ms. George does fall short in two crucial areas: first, in her writing style, and second, in
the choice of the Jesus she offers us.
Her writing is, for the most part, rather flat and uninspired. It is good solid writing but the story here demands much more. I'm thinking of a book like Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale.
Helprin exhibits more awe and wonder in that book than is present here. Ms. George's writing, while solid enough for most tasks, just doesn't rise to the level needed for this particular subject.
How is the reader to understand the impact her Jesus has on people and on society?
For the Jesus she gives us is never really more than an ordinary person. Part of this is due to Ms. George’s writing style, and part is due to the way the author chooses to have Mary perceive him. The author has Mary scrutinize him
wonder to herself just what it is that is special about the man. He is nice enough physically, but nothing more than that. Essentially Jesus would be just another face in the crowd, Mary Magdalene concludes. So it is
"something else" about the man that makes Jesus special.
Some historians might offer reasons why Jesus had to be more than simply ordinary in appearance, Jesus's ability to cower the Money Lenders in the temple for example suggests a physically powerful man
-- otherwise, why wouldn't the other men just up and thrown Him out of the temple instead of the other way around? Still, Ms. George's choice to offer us a physically ordinary Jesus would be
acceptable if the author could somehow tell us what that "something else" Jesus possesses is. But, alas, she cannot, and the reader is left to wonder just why so many people are willing to abandon their lives, their livelihoods, their parents and their children, to follow this ordinary man. Many up and follow Jesus simply because he calls to them to do so. "Follow me," Jesus says, and they do, almost without question. Why? Would anyone do so for an “ordinary” person?
No, something more is needed than mere commonplaceness of physicality and
mere hints of “something else." The author has failed to present to us a Jesus that would allow the reader to appreciate and understand the “pull” Jesus had on these other people. He so obviously generates awe and respect in others when they meet him. Why? This is of course an extremely difficult task for any writer to fulfill. I doubt many could do it. Unfortunately Ms. George cannot either.
Readers may also be taken aback an inconsistency in the character of the other Mary, Jesus’s
mother. When Jesus first goes off to his mission, his mother literally thinks
her son is crazy and calls him “mad." However, later on, the author gives us this scene:
He had said he was the Messiah! He had said it! Mary was as stunned as the Samaritan woman. She turned to Jesus’s mother and saw that she was smiling.
So then, the reader must wonder, why was Jesus’s mother calling her son a lunatic earlier?
"You knew." Mary touched her arm and spoke softly, only to her.
"You have always known."
The elder Mary turned to look at the younger one. Her eyes, soft brown and filled with knowledge, searched Mary of Madala’s.
"I have known," she said.”
Still, despite its defects, Mary Called Magdalene is a good, reasonably solid historical novel and is worth reading even with its shortcomings. We can applaud Ms. George’s grand attempt to tackle such an immense project, even if ultimately she fails to achieve mastery over it.
© 2002 by Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book